Unpacking Self-Compassion


Self-compassion, or treating yourself with the same care and kindness as you would a close friend, can radically change the way you relate to yourself. Pioneered by Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, this practice encourages us to tap into the inner wellspring of gentleness that we readily show to those around us.

For many the concept may seem foreign. “You want me to be nice to me?” I’m not talking about polishing off a pint of ice cream or taking a bubble bath every day but deliberately engaging with yourself in a way that demonstrates patience, understanding and acceptance.

Self-compassion can be as simple as meditation.

Here’s an example: You’re at the grocery store with your toddler who’s about two minutes away from a meltdown. You hurry over to the checkout lane with your cart full of fruits, veggies, grains and frozen pizza (you’re only human after all) and are told once all your bags have been packed and you’ve whipped out your credit card that it’s a cash-only lane.

Panic sets in. Cash only? I don’t have any cash on me! I used it to pay the sitter last night. I knew I shouldn’t have gone out. Ugh, I’m such a failure. Your mind begins reeling and pretty soon you’ll be headed for the humiliation lane if you don’t change course.

In this moment, you have two options. You can continue berating yourself, calling to mind all the times you’ve failed as a parent, a partner, a friend, an employee … the list goes on. Or you can recognize that you made an honest mistake and are doing the best you can.

You can acknowledge to yourself that this is a moment of suffering and being hard on yourself isn’t going to make it any easier. You can look at your toddler with love and let his presence be a source of comfort. You can apologize to the customers behind you, sensing their frustration while recognizing that they’re also human and have had moments of absentmindedness and made errors in judgment in their lives.

Responding to yourself with compassion doesn’t mean you’re letting yourself off the hook or justifying your actions when you’ve made a mistake. It also doesn’t mean that the difficulties you’re presently facing will magically disappear by uttering a few kind words to yourself. It simply means that instead of getting caught in a cycle of self-deprecation, you turn toward yourself with tenderness.

Self-compassion frees up our minds and bodies to observe and act without being weighed down by self-criticism and self-blame. Sound impossible? Here are some ways to strengthen your self-compassion muscle:

Find your self-compassion phrases: This is what you’ll say to yourself when you’re in need of some extra support. It might be, “I know how hard this is for you. I hate to see you in pain and offer my strength, presence and understanding.” Write down or say different phrases aloud until you find ones that resonate. Then stick them on your fridge, at your desk or in your wallet — wherever you’ll see them often and be reminded to use them.

Pay attention to your close relationships: Observe how you interact with your friends and loved ones. How do you greet them, listen to them and respond to them? You might even consider asking what they most value about your friendship. Perhaps they appreciate your loyalty, sense of humor or insight. Maybe they’re grateful for the time you offered your forgiveness when they slipped up.

Practice expressing these qualities more fluently in your relationship with yourself. We often respond to ourselves in ways we wouldn’t dream of responding to those we deeply care about.

Embrace mindfulness: Mindfulness encourages us to be present with our circumstances as they are without being tempted to change them or escape from them. It doesn’t mean that we like them but that we simply witness their moment-to-moment unfolding without casting judgment.

When we’re faced with a difficult situation, we can observe what’s happening without imposing our anger, frustration, discouragement or fear. In doing so, we’re far less likely to believe the voice that tells us what a disappointment we are and instead show ourselves the warmth and affection of which we’re worthy.

Engage community: One of the key components of self-compassion is the acknowledgement that we are not alone in our suffering. If we were, there wouldn’t be so much attention paid to it in our news cycles, our schools and workplaces, our places of worship or even around our dinner tables. When we show ourselves compassion, we say to ourselves, “I am not alone. My story may look different from yours, but I know that you too have struggled.”

When we’re able to make this connection, we can soften toward ourselves by coming to see that we deserve care and understanding as much as anyone else. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and seek support when the going gets tough. This is not a sign of weakness but a reflection of the love you bear for yourself.

Self-compassion isn’t a passive agreement you make to be kind to yourself but an active response you initiate each time you’re having difficulties. Like all skills, it requires practice and patience. You might find that you’re harder on yourself than you realize or, conversely, that you’re pretty good at expressing goodwill toward yourself in moments of suffering.

Wherever you fall on the self-compassion scale, use the strategies above to begin generating compassion for yourself more regularly. Over time, it will start to feel more natural, and you’ll be certain that the next time you need a little tenderness, you’ll know where to find it.

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